Interview with Robert Morris University Esports Director Kurt Melcher



Wed 12th Apr 2017 - 12:15pm

The Robert Morris University Illinois Eagles have been a dominant team in the collegiate League of Legends scene since its inception. We got a chance to talk with Kurt Melcher, the Director of Esports at Robert Morris University. We talked about creating a succesful team, his advice to students and administrators, the best part about being involved in collegiate League of Legends, and his favorite champion and skins! 

Could you please introduce yourself, what organization you are associated with and your position there?

Kurt Melcher (KM): My name is Kurt Melcher, I’m the Director of Esports at Robert Morris University in Illinois.

What is the role of the director of Esports?

KM: Yeah so we started varsity Esports, so a scholarship for sports talent, in 2014. We started with one game, League of Legends. I drew up a proposal and brought it to the administration, and we implemented it, I hired all the staff, and guided us through building an arena on campus. So while I’m…well in those days I was everything. Trying to mentor coaches and staff because a lot of times, a I feel like, coming from Esports, there’s a little bit of a fall off because while you may know the game in and out, the sort of leadership requirements and sort of how you run an athletic program is missing a little bit. So it really felt like 2014 and 2015 that was where I spent a lot of my time just kind of modeling, mentoring, saying this is how it should be run, this what we need to do. And we’ve been fortunate enough to have some consistency of staff from 2014 all the way here until in 2017 so. And added (staff) obviously because now we are up to five different titles, so that’s allowed me to allow them to run a little bit and I could just handle the more administrative aspects of it whether it’s like new hires, just guidance, maybe partnerships. We’re in the final stages of opening a second space on our camps, which allows for more positions, play positions, practice positions. It’s a little bit higher level now, which is great, and we’ve done well.

I’m interested in the process of how you were able to convince the administration to create the program. From my understanding, there was no Esports organization prior to 2014, so how did you introduce Esports to the administration?

KM: You’re right, there was no Esports club or anything like that. It was just my background in gaming, and my love for video games. I’ve played, gosh, like Starcraft 2, Brood War, a lot…I mean A LOT. Red Alert, I may have even played more. So games way back like that, I just had every console, I’ve always had a gaming PC, you know, I’ve just tried to keep up to date. I’ll admit, I came to League of Legends a little bit late, but once I started playing it a lot, that’s when I saw that competitive aspect to it, the team based component to it, and how good the players were. Like I was getting wrecked all the time no matter how much time I put into it. The skill of the players I was amazed at. I just kind of had a light bulb moment, like boy...this could be a, this should be a sport in college.

I had already been at the school for over 15 years, as an athletic administrator in the athletic department, so I just drew up a proposal, and shared what I thought it could look like, and how it should be treated as a varsity sport, and the benefits that could come to it that could providing it as a varsity sport, not just to the students and to all the players but also to our own university of adding a whole new demographic and a whole new community surrounding Esports. I knew we would start with one and add as we moved forward, because as you know, I’m sure you play League, but also Hearthstone a little bit and maybe some Counter Strike, so everyone has a commonality surrounding gaming, or Esports. That was the important thing to me. And to be honest, I was just sort of mirroring what all the other colleges were doing, what they have, like The University of Washington has got a 2000 person Esports community. It was important to me to not just have like a challenger team, and like 5 players and that’s it and were just running like mercenaries chasing prize money. It was to create a whole community where like-minded players, no matter what your skill level, can have that sort of backing and that sort of share system available to them. I think the school saw value in that. I also think that my standing in the school from, being there a long time, that trusted me.

I have a feeling if I said the same thing as a 22 year old brand new, they would have probably been like, no thanks. You know I feel like I had some cachet build up, and they were like okay, if he’s saying it, not saying that it was all because I said so but, just that I think it made sense. Like when I met with the president, I brought an iPad with to show him what LCS looks like, and shout casting and the production level. If you’ve never seen anything like that, I think that helped a lot to be honest. But the thing I give our school the most credit for, is not just saying, well let's hedge our bet and just go a little bit in, because I said if it is only a little I don’t think it's worth doing it. You have to go all in to make it relevant to the players and what they expect. You can’t just put them in a lab, and say this is our Esports team. You have to treat it the same as athletics. To their credit they did, and that’s where we are now.

What kind of advice do you have for new teams that are trying to get going, and convincing the administration in starting a program like yours?

KM: My advice, well I have two different advice paths. One to students or club presidents that want to approach administrations. What they need to do is really plan ahead, and if you can find like a long range plan that most school boards and executive boards have posted somewhere public. Use them to your advantage to say, what are the things that Esports can check off for you in that process? In the end, schools have admissions and they also need to be solvent. So whether it’s admissions or enrollment, or whether or it’s foreign student base or STEM initiatives or whether there is some research that can be associated with a brand new industry or whether there is a curriculum programing that can get associated with a brand new industry. In the early stages, I think those are all important to bring up. The one thing I would say to student leaders is no to say, we should because we’re this good. You know that doesn’t really matter too much to administrators. On the back of “we’re so good, we should have recognition.” That’s the wrong way to go about it in my opinion.

To school administrators, which I speak to all the time, it’s just recognizing and being ahead of the curve. You still are and still would be at this point. In my opinion, gaming and Esports are not going to go away, it’s just going to grow as sort of a stigma or the stereotype of gaming has changed. I feel like there is still a stigma to gaming where it’s like lazy and unmotivated. But, the players in our program are just as motivated and committed as any of the athletes at our school. I’m sure that holds true everywhere. It’s just sort of looking at Esports in a different way and recognizing the positive gains that students get from being a part of something that they are passionate about and being competitive playing against other schools. And that competition exists. It’s not like you are organizing, I don’t know, like wall painting or something. It’s a real competitive cauldron that they can enter in. And there is real benefits for the students at the end of the day, which every school is looking to achieve. How to create and prepare students for life with a degree with their institution. I could just tell you as an athletics director that, you have a step up on students if you come from an athletic background because they know that you are able to one, handle a diverse load of schoolwork and athletic responsibilities like practice, games, lifiting and all that sort of stuff. And the same holds true for Esports because you have real demands, as you know it takes a long time to grind out, to play and be successful especially in a team.

Also the leg up comes from being able to work in a team. If you come from an athletic background then they know you can work in a team dynamic and take direction from responsibility and have discipline. The benefits is they you’re making better students. It’s just maybe the fact that the same way a football player doesn’t really, may not have that much an interest in swimming, Esports interest may not have that much of an interest in football. So it’s…similarities exist, you just kind of have to expand your vision.

Speaking of the students, you mentioned them balancing practice and school. Are there academic standards that need to be met to play on the team similar to how the NCAA has regulations on their athletes?

KM: Yeah, we’re not a part of the NCAA, we’re in the NAI. So we really, same with a couple of the other club sports like club hockey, and that’s not NAI or NCAA, but its high level organized club system. But we hold our students to the same academic thresholds of…you need to have a 2.0 you need to be passing all your classes, so you’re getting close to graduation. Our students have to pass 48 hours of coursework year to year to be eligible. So proving academic progress. So you leverage what they love and their team, to make sure that they are creating that balance in their life. Same as basketball players or soccer players. Being young adults, they may sometimes have difficulty doing it on their own. But that’s why our staff is there to make sure that they’re enforcing the fact that their student athletes first. That they have to be eligible to be able to so. They’re gonna want to. Because the love of the team love of sport they will make sure they are going to class because they don’t want to let their team down. That’s the same for any sport.

So you have scholarships for some of the top players, what kind of qualities are you looking for people who may want to apply in the future?

KM: The first thing, and let’s be clear, I’m not any of the coaches, while I have opinions within League and a couple of the other games, I definitely leave that up to our coaching staff. But I know what they do is that they definitely look at first of all, rank and position and that sort of stuff. But then we definitely try to get to know the player a little bit because, at the end of the day, no matter how great you are if you are not able to operate in a team...true character is what’s equally important as skill or elo to be honest. So I feel like we try as best we can to get to know the players first and as best as we can to see if they are a good quality fit for our environment which we try and make it learning and holistic and friendly and inclusive. But at the end of the day they want to be competitive as well so we’re looking for the best players we can find within certain positions and ones that can operate within a team.

So with the Esports scene growing bigger on the collegiate level, are there any changes you would like to see in the scene moving forward. Are there any issues you are encountering?

KM: No, I wouldn’t say there is issues. I think it’s great that other schools are getting involved and trying varsity situations. I just really hope that as the scene overall, that programs aren’t just adding and doing things I said not to do, like oh well we’ll add this fifty dollar tuition stipend if you come in and play for our team. And then you are in this existing computer lab, where you have a 30 minute practice because we have our finance class coming in. The student interest isn’t being leveraged for an enrollment factor. That’s my worry, because it will do collegiate sports a disservice and it also won’t last for whatever school that chooses to go that route. It will get weeded out somewhat quickly, because as you know this is the most connected group of students in the history of time, and word gets out pretty fast when things aren’t operating smoothly.

What’s been the rewarding part of the journey through collegiate Esports and establishing the team?

KM: I’d say the most rewarding part is just seeing players that have been in our system for a couple year now. It’s the same for traditional athletics, see how they grow and how they learn and how they mature through...a freshman coming in, by senior year, if they are an in organized program that adds value that creates discipline models and forces players to grow and challenge themselves, they come out different people. And that to me is the best part of coaching and being an administrator and being involved in collegiate athletics overall, is seeing that difference. Then you have a life long bond with them. I’ll walk through the airport randomly out of nowhere there will be an athletics student from you know 10 years ago, that will be like “Hey Kurt!” and you wind up talking to them for an hour just because you shared that bond together. That is what’s most important. If you’re able to have a couple wins and some you know exciting games, whether you won the championships, and you’ve gone through the battle together, that’s what the end result is. That’s really the biggest value to all of this, is that experience.

And one last thing, who’s your favorite champion.

KM: Well, I was just telling some of the guys, I don’t know if you saw the skin but I play a lot of Renekton because one, it’s easy and now because the Toy Box skin? I love that. I grew up…“grew up,” haha. I started off with the easy ones like Ashe and Jinx, but uhh, I pretty much play Renekton the most.

I hear the skin didn’t get all the visual effects it was supposed to.

KM: I don’t care, that whole pack…I was like, this is the best. It reminds me of Toy Story. Yeah…it’s awesome.